- STAYING IN TOUCH
Last time we commented on the success of the gospel songs of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. But here we come to the crux of the problem: while some musical styles are timeless, others are not. And we all know popular music styles don’t usually stay popular for long.
History shows that the church has an unfortunate way of latching onto something that works for a time and trying to immortalize it. That’s exactly what happened with many of these songs of that era. It wasn’t long before they had become “funny” and out of date, quaint reminders of a past era.
The serious thing about this is that styles don’t just lose their effect; in time the effect becomes reversed. What once made the listener weep, in a later era evokes laughter, even as we chuckle today at the melodramatically tragic gestures of silent movie stars. So Christians, still clinging faithfully to those faded song styles, became, in the eyes of the very ones they were trying to reach, “those quaint, out-of-touch-with-reality people who are still living in the past.”
We have no objection to holding on to some of the good things of the past, especially the great truths of the first century church. But what merit is there in enshrining the musical fads of the past if it makes us look ludicrous in the eyes of our own generation? We create a barrier that has nothing to do with holiness or biblical truth, just cultural differences. It’s a hindrance both to fellowship and evangelization.
How did this happen? Could it happen again? When a generation of leadership passes the baton to the next, progress often ceases. The younger leaders are afraid to change anything the illustrious fathers began. Music and methods lose their elasticity, become set, then atrophy. In time they become institutionalized, then fossilized. The glory fades, the movement goes into decline, and the people slowly harden into stern protectors of the status quo.
Had the illustrious fathers lived on, they probably would have continued to write new songs in new styles, discarding the old when they became stale and ineffective. Instead, Christian writers continued for decades to write songs in styles that had become more and more out of date, some of them calculated to reach a generation who had already died.
Let us say again, lest we be misunderstood, that we aren’t suggesting we throw out the great old hymns. Some of them are timeless, a part of the fabric of western civilization. They are the church’s equivalent of the standards that live on from one generation to another.
Songs such as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” “Crown Him With Many Crowns,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “For All the Saints,” “My Jesus I Love Thee,” “O Worship the King” and others of their caliber still speak to us today, even to the young who have never heard them before.
Shortly before his death at age 28, Keith Green “discovered” and recorded “Holy, Holy, Holy.” He lay on our living room carpet with tears flowing into his ears as he listened to the rough mix of himself singing it.
We saw a similar reaction in a group of young rock musicians introduced to “It is Well With My Soul,” a late 19th century song that has retained its popularity because it probably wasn’t faddish to begin with. Greatness is greatness in any century.
There are song styles, however, that have not lasted, except in the songbooks and services of some segments of the church. But all over America there is a great, swelling movement of churches that have switched to contemporary music for ministry. As one pastor said, “We have gotten rid of old music that kept us from communicating with the unchurched.”
Before retiring an old song, though, first see if there is a way to make it useful. Find a new groove? Try new chord changes? Revise archaic language? You may find a way to set an old song to a new arrangement and help it find new life in the church today.
Of course, once great but now outdated gospel songs shouldn’t be unceremoniously thrown out, but given places of honor in the archives, retired from active duty with a medal pinned on them: “You have served well. You blessed your own generation, but now a new generation is here, with its own sounds and culture. Rest in honored peace.”
Well then, should we avoid writing in the popular styles of our own day because the songs won’t last? Not at all. But let’s do it in ways that will give our songs as much longevity as possible (such as using strong melodies), and with the understanding that we may not be writing for posterity but for our time only. Much contemporary Christian music will, in time, prove to have been temporary Christian music.
When times change and musical styles become obsolete, let’s have the grace to let them go.
But this lays on us a heavy responsibility, doesn’t it? If we hope the songs we write will replace the ones that have served so powerfully in their time, we had better do all we can to see that they have the power of the Holy Spirit on them.